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Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

Wisdom vs. Happiness: A Eulogy for James Sayre

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018: Elders & Mentors.

House in Rockridge

In summer 2011, I had my last phone conversation with my old friend James. He was ten years older than me, and had had a profound influence on me when we first met, more than thirty years earlier, so that I came to consider him part of my small circle of honored elders and mentors.

In the early 2000s, James had moved into the dilapidated house in Oakland’s Rockridge district where his younger brother had committed suicide, and within a few years James had contracted diabetes. The interior of his house had become a dusty maze of clutter, combining odds and ends he’d picked up at yard sales with stacked boxes of the books he’d self-published but couldn’t sell. There was only a narrow path between the clutter allowing movement between rooms. When I visited, we sat in a tiny cleared space in front of the fireplace, as James broke up pieces of old furniture to burn, to take the edge off the chill, since he was no longer using the house’s heating system.

In keeping with his lifelong practice of “voluntary simplicity,” James refused to fix things when they broke. The kitchen sink leaked, so he’d taken to washing dishes in the bathtub. His focus was on the small yard outside, the tiny patch in front and the larger, fenced area in back. There, he cultivated a profusion of exotic vegetation, including his beloved Australian eucalyptus, a jungle that was gradually engulfing the house and hiding it from the street. Some of it was edible – he had a rapidly expanding blackberry patch.

The mainstay of James’s diet had always been the heavy unleavened bread, full of nuts and dried fruit, that he had baked as long as I’d known him. On his weekly forays to libraries and yard sales by bike and public transit, he carried chunks of this bread in his pockets, so that he was always snacking for sustained energy instead of concentrating his intake at regular meals. Self-reliance and thrift were a family tradition, part of James’s DNA.

We’d both maintained regular contact over the years, through frequent emails, regular calls, and sporadic visits. I moved to New Mexico in 2006, and on my first visit back to the Bay Area, I called to arrange a visit.

When I showed up at James’s house, his parents’ old Buick was in the driveway, but there was no response to my knocks and shouts at the door. I kept trying for a half hour, then left. And shortly after I drove off, my cell phone rang. James apologized, saying that he no longer felt able to allow people into his house. He seemed embarrassed, but otherwise in good spirits.

We continued emailing and talking regularly, and James seemed a little more down, a little more discouraged, each time. His family were all dead, and he’d gradually lost touch with all his other friends – he got in an argument with the last of them, a former Stanford classmate who was a computer consultant in Berkeley, and stopped communicating. I was the last friend standing. By 2011, he admitted he was running out of the last of the money he’d inherited from his parents, and he didn’t know what he was going to do to survive. And after that last call in the summer, he stopped responding to my calls and emails. His web site went offline, and when I called a second or third time, his land line had been disconnected.

I called a friend who lived nearby and asked her to check out James’s house. She reported that there were young people living there now, so I really freaked out. I sent a letter to his address requesting information, but shortly afterward, I called his number again, and got his answering machine. And his web site was back online.

I continued to send email inquiries and leave occasional phone messages, and I downloaded his web site to my hard drive in case it went offline again. But I never heard from James after that.

I visited the Bay Area several times, always stopping at his house, pounding on the door and yelling his name. My neighborhood friend had apparently gone to the wrong address – James’s house never changed, always hidden behind a screen of vegetation, always silent, with the old Buick parked in the driveway. I was of two minds about harassing someone who’d chosen to be a recluse. Should I respect his decision and leave him alone? But I always left a note saying I missed him.

Every six months or so I did a Google search on his name and location. He continued with his practice of writing letters to the editors of the Berkeley Planet and San Francisco Chronicle, fighting capitalism, imperialism, and corruption, through 2012, but after that there was nothing. Finally, before visiting the Bay Area in 2018, I did an online tax search in county records and found that someone had paid a big supplemental tax at his address, indicating improvements to the property, which I knew James would’ve never done. A friend did a real estate search and found that his house had indeed been partially renovated, and it was listed for sale at $1.2 million.

We drove over, and a neighbor informed me that James had died a year earlier from complications of diabetes. I took BART to the Berkeley Court House and waited an hour to request probate records that ultimately put me in touch with James’s nephew, the son of his younger sister who had died much earlier.

Voluntary Simplicity

I met James because Pake, my best friend in grad school at Stanford, had met him earlier, and had stored his belongings in the attic of James’s group house while we were tramping through Mexico and Guatemala after finishing our studies. James let me store my stuff there, too, and when I returned months later, let me camp out in his attic. I came up with the idea of building a new room, an extension on the back of the house, and James thought it was a great idea. He showed me where to steal used lumber, late at night, from the site of a building that was being demolished a few blocks away.

James and I had both studied engineering at the graduate level at Stanford, but ten years before me, he’d dropped out to help organize anti-war and environmental movements. Like many in our society, James was addicted to politics, but he was also suspicious of those who seek or hold power, and was more comfortable with local, grass-roots, communal efforts. Politics on higher levels was a game to him, a spectator sport just as entertaining as baseball. He had an old black-and-white TV in his room and we roommates could hear him yelling behind his closed door, throughout the day and night, but we never knew if it was sports or politics that were setting him off. Whatever – he nudged me out of my long academic isolation, just as our world really seemed to be going crazy.

Within a few weeks after I moved in and finished building my room, there was the People’s Temple mass suicide, followed immediately by the Moscone/Milk assassination, and then the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. James enlightened me about the shameful hidden history of our society that we’d never been taught in school, what Howard Zinn would summarize in his People’s History of the United States a few years later. The brutality of capitalism that made people poor and drove them into cults like the People’s Temple. The brutality of imperialism that had caused generations of suffering in Central America, with death squads, revolution, and civil war in our own time. James and I went to what Ralph Nader called the largest-ever anti-nuclear protest, in San Francisco’s Civic Center. My art and music changed to reflect the current events, and the history behind them, that James was educating me about.

James was a tall, dashing, long-haired hippie who looked like a swashbuckler out of Elizabethan times, but he introduced me and my friends to punk music and changed the course of my life. I’d grown up in a small, conservative farming community in the Midwest, and until I finished grad school, I remained uptight and inhibited, isolated from and oblivious to much of what was going on the world. James became my first guide to this new world. I remember when I first heard the Modern Lovers and the Ramones playing behind the door of his room, and got a history lesson on the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. The Sex Pistols followed shortly afterward, and there was no turning back.

Stealing lumber in our affluent suburb was only part of James’s larger program of sticking it to the Man, exploiting the loopholes of capitalism, and living simply and cheaply. He got me started dumpster diving for food at the upscale supermarket a couple blocks from our house, and within weeks I was getting most of my sustenance for free. There were now five of us living at the group house and rent was super cheap. James taught me and my friends his Book-of-the-Month Club scam. Using a transparently false name like Bill Melater, he’d join the club and receive a box full of free books and records “on approval” which he would immediately sell at local used bookstores, raising $100-$200. The club would then send invoices for a few months before giving up, and James would start over again under a new phony name. With a cheap enough lifestyle, you could live like this indefinitely.

Inspired by the news, the history, and the punk music James had turned me onto, I joined the post-punk arts underground. I rented a loft in San Francisco that my roommates and I – a group house inspired by James’s – turned into an underground arts center. James collected admission at my experimental band’s first show, and he was a frequent visitor at our loft throughout the 1980s as he came and went between his travels across the world.

From the beginning, even before I moved into James’s group house, I was the beneficiary of his torrents of correspondence. I have more letters and packets of clippings from James than from anyone else, including my family. For more than thirty years, James sent me postcards and letters continually, sometimes several times a week, from wherever in the world he happened to be, always signing them “Love, James.” He was interested in almost everything, and everywhere he went, he protested against corruption, capitalism, and imperialism. He collected folk and ethnic music and dubbed it from vinyl to cassette – I have James’s compilations of Tahitian music, Australian country and western, etc. etc.

To support my creative work, I’d landed a very flexible job with an engineering firm, and in the mid-80s when James needed more funds for travel, I hired him as a clerical assistant. There really wasn’t much for him to do, but he did it conscientiously and it allowed me to take more time off for my band. Later, as the digital and dotcom industries took off, he found work as a tech writer in Silicon Valley.

In the 1990s, his younger sister and brother died, and James met a new girlfriend who encouraged him to write and publish. His first book, on bird names, was well-received, so he wrote and published a second, on herbs, that resulted in neither reviews nor sales. That experience, and James’s frequent letters to the editors of local newspapers, inspired me to share my own writing for free, to sidestep the competitive, hierarchical culture of capitalism and consumerism and stop dreaming of stardom in the market economy.

A lifestyle of self-reliance and voluntary simplicity meant that James, by dropping out and setting an example wherever he went, did more for society and the environment than many people who seek to “make a difference” through the use of money and power, or by otherwise working within a system that is fundamentally unjust. He certainly did more, by consuming less, than people who buy electric cars and fantasize that they’re “saving the planet” through increased consumption of electricity and the energy and unaccountable raw materials that go into advanced technology.

By thinking beyond the cliches of liberalism and patriotism, by opposing war and imperialism and speaking truth to power, James reinforced the lessons I’d gotten from earlier mentors, like the radical pastor who’d encouraged me to question authority and think critically, and the radical college professor who encouraged me to challenge the fundamental assumptions of our society and culture. Unlike many of my well-educated friends, James never stopped thinking critically and questioning authority, and to the end, he resisted the capitalist consumer lifestyle and addiction to technology that they all ultimately accepted.

Wisdom vs. Happiness

A few years ago I was visiting an old friend when he said he needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with me. He sat me down and told me that there must be a flaw in my criticisms of our society, because my conclusions had brought me nothing but loneliness and unhappiness, and my life had become a miserable failure.

I try to avoid knee-jerk reactions and remain open to my friends’ feedback, so instead of responding directly, I continued to reflect on what he’d said. None of my other friends had said anything like this – most of us had lively discussions, learning from each other and agreeing on many points. I eventually concluded that my friend’s “heart-to-heart” said more about him than about me.

But there was a belief nested within his message that seems widely held and is worth examining: that true wisdom, true enlightenment, bring serenity. And the converse, that the lonely, unhappy person has failed to find the wisdom that would enable him or her to be content.

Beyond this, there’s the unspoken assumption that individual happiness is the goal of life, and the acquisition of wisdom is just the means to that end.

All of these fundamental beliefs can be traced back to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher I studied in my freshman year of college. Some people now replace “happiness” with “well-being,” but in our individualistic society, the emphasis is always on the individual.

There are actually people who live such cloistered lives that they believe true enlightenment can protect us from suffering. As if the desperately poor, the sufferer of chronic pain, the tortured prisoner, the victim of rape or other violence, can be happy and serene in the moment if they’ve achieved true wisdom.

I thought of all this as I contemplated James’s final years. We have no way of knowing how he experienced them, but what impact did his withdrawal have on his friends and neighbors?

I remember dilapidated, “haunted” houses from my childhood, old widows and widowers who were recluses, and eccentric outsiders and outcasts who came and went in the background. People who would now be considered dysfunctional or mentally ill in one way or another. Was it that they’d turned their backs on the community, or that the community had let them down in some way?

In any event, we could say these dysfunctional recluses were setting a negative example. Don’t let yourself end up like them, lonely and miserable! But there would be a lingering curiosity, especially as we all age and develop more and more doubts about our own paths through the rat race. Withdrawing from the world could have its attractions. I have a reclusive older neighbor who admits he’s happy by himself – not miserably lonely as you might expect.

Peaceful societies like the Amish and the Ifaluk place their emphasis on the well-being of the community rather than the individual. If the community is not thriving, how can an individual member be happy? If the individual’s environment is full of dysfunction and suffering, how can wisdom bring him or her happiness? Many of my urban friends move daily through streets reeking of piss and teeming with diseased homeless people, breathing polluted air, their ears assaulted by mechanical noise. Can they tune all of this out by meditating? Should they?

Following James’s example, I eventually decided that happiness should not be my primary goal. As an artist, I need to see things as they are, no matter how ugly or frightening. I want to understand what’s happening, no matter how discouraging. What I see and understand will not make me happy. Enlightenment will not bring serenity, and if you keep saying things that make people uncomfortable, you may end up alone. So be it.

James Sayre Memorial web site

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